Two American rogues and the gift of optimism

Archetype: Tom Sawyer and Bill Clinton are two fatherless boys who might be best friends.

January 21, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm

INSTEAD OF whitewashing the fence, he gave us Whitewatering.

Now that the Clinton presidency is over, let's consider the American literary character William Jefferson Clinton most closely resembles. Our national imagination offers only one outstanding candidate, and I don't mean Joe Klein's anonymous portrait of the president in his novel, "Primary Colors."

Forget about college courses featuring Clinton's favorite poet, Walt Whitman, and some of America's great novelists, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner. Tragedy ain't this Southerner's strong suit.

Sunny, disarming and naughty: who's that but Tom Sawyer hiding from his Aunt Polly in the first scene of Mark Twain's classic, "Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

Clinton recently described himself as the president who had "the most fun." And Twain's lively and fun-loving tale of Tom's boyhood in a small Missouri town in the mid-19th century seems to foreshadow young Bill Clinton, who grew up in a small Arkansas town in the mid-20th century. "There were some that believed he would be president, yet, if he escaped hanging," Twain wrote of Tom. With those words, Twain not only created an American icon, but also gave us the archetype for Clinton.

Missouri and Arkansas are next-door neighbors and their folksy country cultures have a great deal in common. Tom and Bill might have been best friends, always getting into scrapes. Looky-here, can't you just see those two rogues going down the Mississippi River together -- or perchance disappearing into the distance on Air Force One?

Both were fatherless boys, and it took a village with the kindness of others -- relatives, shopkeepers, Judge Thatcher and the Widow Douglas -- to help raise them. So in their small worlds, Tom and Bill were already somebodies at a young age. They weren't watched over every second, but they knew adults around cared about their general welfare.

With that goes a gift of belonging to a specific place on the planet, which goes a long way in politics.

A greater gift they share is a tremendous optimism that is quintessentially American, as much as Jay Gatsby's burning ambition in Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Tom and Bill both believe that life is a tale full of laughs, close calls and deep meaning.

This optimism, I might add, is not to be toyed with. It's a dangerous weapon when coupled with the audacity to take on a previously untouchable group in the political arena, like the National Rifle Association or the big tobacco companies. In Tom's case, he testified in a murder trial against the village villain, Injun Joe.

Even though his administration's big idea -- universal health care -- tanked, it did not take Clinton's optimism down with it. In fact, nothing could keep him down for long during eight years of cliffhangers worthy of a Twain novel. Neither Tom nor Bill has ever lived a dull day.

But a golden tongue is the greatest gift shared by both. Tom persuaded all the other boys that there was nothing he'd rather do than whitewash that fence when everyone else was going swimming or fishing. Pretty soon they were lining up and Tom was charging them for a turn to do his chore.

Like the village boys, Clinton's enemies can only wonder at his power to persuade the American people in much the same beguiling way. Storytellers are a dime a dozen on Capitol Hill, but none possesses Clinton's politically perfect pitch in all settings -- from an NAACP convention in Baltimore to a group of government scientists, from voters in New Hampshire to "real people" down on their luck. Clinton's words "I'll always be with you" have become his sign off.

Tom and Bill share an extraordinary experience denied to most mortals: witnessing their own funerals and then popping up alive again. People thought Tom's end came by drowning and Clinton's by impeachment. Tom and some pals listened to their eulogies in church, concealed from the grief-stricken congregation. Clinton watched from the White House as friends and foes, politicians and pundits pronounced his presidency dead from their pulpits.

But the larger congregation, the American people, decided they weren't ready to watch the end just yet.

Finally, like his alter ego, Tom clearly had an eye for female beauty in the fair form of Becky Thatcher. Like Bill and Monica Lewinsky, they were lost in the dark for untold hours -- but they were in a cave, not the Oval Office.

Now we the people are a bit like Aunt Polly, who when she discovered a bit of evidence that Tom was a good-hearted lad and did some good at the end of the day, can't help but forgive him -- again.

Jamie Stiehm is a reporter for The Sun.

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